Helping Teens cope with challenges of COVID-19

The following column appeared in several APG of East Central Minnesota newspapers during July, 2020. This included the Stillwater Gazette.


Helping teens cope with challenges of COVID-19

By Joe Nathan

“Since April, we’re been inundated with cases of teenagers who had been doing fine before COVID 19. Their parent(s) report that the teens suddenly could not sleep at night, lost their appetite, were cutting themselves, and had suicidal thoughts. Personalities changed, teenagers become irritable, depressed, had no energy, and were getting into fights with their parent(s) and siblings over ‘nothing.’ ”

That’s what my son Dr. David Nathan, an Allina licensed psychologist, told me on July 8. Gov. Tim Walz recently appointed him to the State Advisory Council on Mental Health. Nathan, another psychologist and the Minnesota Department of Health offer what I hope is helpful advice for parents and grandparents who are trying to help their teenagers cope with this pandemic.

The pandemic has frustrated and angered many teenagers. They’ve been cut off from going out with friends. They were not able to participate in spring sports, music, dances, graduation and other extracurricular activities they were looking forward to and loved.

Dr. Valerie Crabtree, chief of Psychosocial Services at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, writing in the magazine Psychology Today, explains: “No one knows the perfect way to parent during a pandemic. No one has studied the question or had experience with this during our lifetime. We have to rely on what we already know about having warm, healthy relationships with our children.” Her article is here:

Nathan urges that we begin by understanding how brains develop: “About age 1, most youngsters’ brains tell them it’s time to learn to walk. About age 2, they learn to talk. Between age 12 and 18, teen brains tell them to socialize with others, try new things, develop independence from parents, watch how other people behave, learn from their own successes and mistakes and become their own individual.”

Many of these things have become far more difficult during the coronavirus pandemic. As Nathan explains: “With teens kept inside, unexpected, suddenly, this blocked teens’ ability to be with friends outside. It’s really uncomfortable, stressful, even painful.”

Nathan strongly urges parents to acknowledge and respect teens’ need to be in touch with friends – both via screens and outside the home (in safe ways). He recommends that families allow youngsters to use their computers to play electronic games with and communicate directly with friends.

Crabtree agrees. She wrote: “Many parents are allowing children a little (or a whole lot) of extra electronics time. That is OK.”

Nathan pointed out that some families take away phones or screens as a consequence of bad behavior. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s a really counterproductive, unhelpful idea – screens and phones are a lifeline for teens,” he said.

Nathan also suggests:

— Giving teenagers tasks: running errands, washing cars and shopping for groceries with, if possible, a little extra money to buy something they’d like.

— If they are interested, giving them total responsibility for the care of a family pet.

He also recommended a free website, Change to Chill, developed by Allina, that’s available to anyone: The Minnesota Department of Health also has helpful tips for families:

Along with offering greater responsibilities in the family, this is a great time for adults to encourage youngsters to pick one of their personal passions and try to help others. There are many options, such as working on a political campaign, climate change, growing healthy food or promoting greater racial equity and understanding. The What Kids Can Do website offers numerous examples. Helping others can be very gratifying.

Nathan concluded our conversation by pointing out: “Many people believe that young (people) are resilient — they can get through anything. This is not necessarily true.” He believes, and I agree, “This is a time when many teenagers urgently need encouragement, assistance and support from their families.”

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. He has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, and PTA president. Reactions welcome: